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Who will win? As the Government locks horns with the unions, Conservative spectators watch on eagerly, demanding the humiliation of Mick Lynch and co. Our race memory is of rubbish piled high in Leicester Square and bodies going unburied, followed by Margaret Thatcher handbagging Arthur Scargill onto the slag heap of history half a decade later. Coming to terms with the strikers is surrender, the argument goes, and means entrenching union militancy once again. Paying the Dane-geld means never getting rid of the Dane.
Thatcher’s ability to withstand the onslaught and reduce union power explains why large-scale industrial action was for so long a thing of the past, and why her example is so easily invoked by us Tory scribblers today. We see dealing with the unions as a zero-sum game: if they win, we lose. The trouble for Rishi Sunak is that this provides a standard against which he is currently judged – and one that properly reflects neither Thatcher’s record, nor the reality of the situation we face.
Taking on the unions is one of the few topics around which Conservative MPs can currently unite. Many of my contemporaries in the right-wing entertainment industry enjoy nothing more than a little union-bashing. The cry goes up from Sunak’s backbenchers, most vocally from those toasting the Prince and Princess across the water. Going wobbly would be a sign of weakness, one that wouldn’t have been shown by our Prime Minister. We expect a war of attrition, a grinding Stalingrad where the Government holds out through whatever the railwaymen, nurses, teachers, and, erm, the Welsh rugby team can throw at them.
One wonders what today’s Tory MPs would have said in 1981, when Thatcher withdrew plans to close 23 mines in order to avoid a strike. She did so because the Government was not prepared: it did not have the coal stockpiled to survive a long dispute. Better to avoid battle, and buy time to prepare for an eventual confrontation, pass the legislation required to reduce union power, and focus on the fundamental objective of reducing inflation. Sunak’s situation today is closer to this than Arthur Scargill’s Ragnarok.
As I have written before, our current disruption is more of a ‘Winter of Mild Irritation’ than another ‘Winter of Discontent’. Ending the strikes would be another barnacle off the boat for a government aiming to be as boring as possible. As December’s GDP figures show, there is also a point approaching where allowing the strikes to go on might be more expensive in terms of lost economic activity than conceding to various pay demands.
In 1979, British trade unions had 13 million members – more than half of all workers. They were essential to delivering the fuel and power that kept the lights on; they could genuinely bring the country to a halt. That is not the case in an age of solar panels and Zoom calls, where only 24 per cent of the workforce is in a union and where that membership is no longer concentrated in great nationalised industrial monopolies. Striking unions are not deciding ‘Who governs Britain?’, but ‘Who can work from home for a couple of days?’
Moreover, we have no recent history of militancy. The current disruption has a clear cause: the large spike in inflation triggered by Bank of England money-printing, post-lockdown supply issues, and the ongoing fluctuations of the energy markets. By the ‘Winter of Discontent’, the days lost in a year to strikes had risen from 7 million a decade before to over 29 million. Between 1960 and 1967, only in one year did that figure exceed 4 million; a decade later, action had become endemic as inflation spiraled and governments failed to resist.
In the longer term, that highlights the importance of avoiding a wage-price spiral or creating a culture where militancy can be embedded. Yet both have been blunted by Thatcher’s reforms, three decades of controlled inflation, and shrinking union membership. Today we face the reality that the public is not interested in a battle with the unions. Thatcher’s victory in 1979 was based on something snapping in the electorate, a perception that the unions were out of control and had to be challenged. As Matthew Goodwin has highlighted, the current emotion amongst the public is not anger, but apathy.
I suggested last year that public opinion may shift towards the Government as frustration with strikes mounts. But the opposite has happened. As the public has realised the disruption caused by the unions is actually quite manageable – and just another feature of Britain’s current stagnation – sympathy towards the strikers has failed to wane. They may be twice as willing to pay up to the nurses as they are university lecturers. What they are not is spoiling for a fight.
All roads thus point to a similar conclusion: that the Government should bring the strikes to a close – or, more bluntly, buy the unions off. There is a difference between simply imitating Sadiq Khan or Nicola Sturgeon and buckling to pay demands as quickly as possible. There is simply not the money to give the nurses (for example) the 19 per cent they are demanding – and even Andrew Bailey understands that borrowing more to fund large pay rises might trigger a wage-price spiral.
With the economy in a (slightly) better state than expected, Jeremy Hunt is likely to have more fiscal headroom than expected. The suggestion in this week’s Financial Times that Sunak and he were considering backdating next year’s wage award for NHS staff and other public sector workers looks like the outline of a compromise.
The need to fund pay awards out of departmental budgets and resist inflation means limiting them to around 5 per cent but backdating them to January addresses union demands that last year’s pay agreement be reopened. Look out for a nod in March’s Budget – if not before.
The Government also has the option of dropping its Minimum Service Level Bill. The tireless insistence of ministers that their doors are always open is the carrot to the bill’s stick. It is a piece of legislation that should have been enacted years ago. It only brings us in line with France and Belgium, and ensures public safety during periods of industrial action. Yet with inflation coming down and Labour promising to repeal it, there is a chance the bill becomes more trouble than its worth and could be abandoned.
Doing so would be to court backbench outrage. I entirely sympathise – offering pay rises to a public sector where productivity is still down 7 per cent on pre-Covid makes me feel rather queasy. Preferably, pay rises would be funded by spending cuts and efficiencies elsewhere – such as by funding teacher pay by cutting the number of support staff.
Yet the wood must be seen for the trees. These strikes are a costly distraction for a government aiming to quietly deliver on voters’ priorities. Like Thatcher giving it to the miners in 1981, a tactical withdrawal now could be a springboard to future victory. As inflation falls, the spur to industrial action melts away. Slowly but surely, the Tories can inch closer to pulling off a remarkable victory in 2024 – and finally having a chance to pass the minimum services legislation we should have had a decade ago.